So Which Is It? Airplane Mode or Turn Devices Completely Off?

I’ve written about the Consumerization of IT (CoIT) in past missives. It seems that today, everyone flying on an airplane has some form of technology gadget. And the range varies from a cell phone to an iPod, to a tablet to a laptop.

Anyone who has been on an airplane in the past couple of decades has heard the warning to turn off their devices during takeoff and landing. “The main cabin door is closing, please turn off any device with an on-off switch. Airplane Mode is not acceptable.” Really? I mean, I understand ‘why’ they are saying to fully turn off and not just to airplane mode. But what happens at altitude? People just turn their devices back on…cellular radios and all! The bottom line is that while folks generally knew how to operate technology, the nuances still escape them.

In fact, on a recent flight from LAX to DFW, I flew on a United CRJ-700. The flight attendant comes on with the normal warning as the door closes. Everyone turns off their devices like they’re told and we’re off! 18,000 feet later, the double-chime alerts the cabin it is ok to turn on “approved” devices. But that’s where things go awry.

On this particular flight I was walking back from the restroom at the back of the plane. Which, I might say, was roomier than most narrow-body jets. But enough about the size of the bathroom. As I walked down the aisle back toward my seat, I always take note of the number and type of devices that people use. On this flight, there were an ample number of iPads in use. Nothing new there. What was a surprise was seeing “No Service” displayed in the upper left hand corner of the screen. And not just on one iPad. But I casually counted at least six of them in this state…and that was just the folks in aisle seats.

I would have expected to see the all to familiar airplane icon that notes the device is in “airplane mode”. Airplane mode, for those not familiar, is where the device turns off the transmitting radios (cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth). Isn’t that what the announcements are intended to address?

This all got me thinking that the announcements really are not doing what they intended. Supposedly (and that’s a big supposedly), electronic devices can interfere with the navigation of an aircraft. Ok. So, which is worse? Finding out that a device onboard interferes with navigational equipment while you’re on the ground? Or finding out when you’re at altitude? Personally, I’d prefer the former.

Just last month, the NY Times learned that the FAA is going to take a “fresh look” at electronic devices on flights.

I’m not going to hold my breath. It will probably take quite a long time before we see a list of approved devices …let alone a broader context of what is approved. What makes this all bizarre is that the FAA has already approved the use of iPads in the cockpit to replace the bulky flight manuals.

If we assume that folks other than the ones I observed are equally confused by the difference between airplane mode and turning off the device, then what are we really fighting against? Bureaucracy? I would bet good money that more devices are turned on and transmitting at altitude. As for when the FAA might lift the ban on using devices on landing and takeoff? My bet is that it’s right behind lifting the ban on liquids in carry on luggage. Again, I’m not holding my breath.

Regardless of the FAA regulations, my recommendation is to enable airplane mode while in-flight. Why? It saves on the battery life of the device. Plus, it just won’t connect to a cell tower.

The average cell tower covers an area of approximately 10 square miles (or a radius of approximately five miles). Five miles translates to 26,400 feet. And most commercial aircraft fly from 30,000 to 40,000 feet. That translates back to between 5.68 and 7.58 miles…well outside of the distance needed to connect. And because cell radios in devices are smart, they vary the power needed to connect to a cell tower. In flight, this means the cell radio is using full-power to attempt the connection…therefore draining precious battery power.

So, the next time you’re in the air, save yourself some headaches…and battery power. Just switch your device to airplane mode and then turn it off for takeoff and landing. When you’re back on the ground, switch it back to regular mode.

And let’s hope that the FAA does heed the sheer magnitude of growing user base that are using these devices by changing their rules.


  1. If pilots don’t know where they are, navigation wise, on takeoff, they have much bigger trouble than cell phones, just saying.

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